By Franklin Holcomb
Russian-backed separatists demonstrated the Kremlin’s continued capability to escalate offensive operations in eastern Ukraine with a tactical advance into the uncontrolled village of Kominternove despite its intervention in Syria. An armored group of roughly 100 Russian-backed separatists seized the village on December 22. Kominternove lies ten kilometers outside the key Ukrainian port city of Mariupol. Separatist forces reportedly launched the operation as retaliation for Ukraine’s occupation of at least two uncontrolled villages east of Mariupol in early December, a move which both Russian and separatist officials claimed could lead to a resumption of hostilities. The advance of separatist mechanized units toward Mariupol is a direct violation of the most recent withdrawal agreement between Ukrainian and Russian-backed forces signed in September. Ukrainian authorities called the occupation of the village a large-scale provocationThe Ukrainian military has reported several incidents of shelling from the separatists' new positions around Kominternove on the neighboring uncontrolled village of Vodiane, located three kilometers closer to Mariupol. These advances underscore the potential for further separatist activity around the strategic port city, targeting weakly defended or uncontrolled villages between Ukrainian and separatist lines.
The separatist advance into Kominternove gives the Russian-backed forces the ability to launch indirect fire on the outskirts of Mariupol with lighter weaponry, including mortars. This may hold tactical significance, enabling the separatists to project force against Ukrainian defenses around the city without launching a high-profile rocket artillery attack. The occupation of Kominternove, however, is not likely the precursor to a major offensive in the near term. Ukrainian forces have fortified Mariupol with a network of trenches, barriers, and mines, obstructing a direct Russian-backed separatist assault on the city from the east. Russian-backed forces would likely intensify operations near Mariupol and across the front line prior to an offensive on the port city, testing government defenses with probing maneuvers and bombarding Ukrainian positions with heavy artillery. Russian-backed forces would also likely seek to outflank heavy Ukrainian defenses east of Mariupol by seizing strategic terrain to the north of the city along the Donetsk-Mariupol highway. Although Russian-backed separatists now have the ability to threaten a strategic Ukrainian city with a wider array of weapons, they have yet to trip several indicators that would signal a looming large-scale offensive.